Talk to just about anybody, and they’ll have a story to share about an aging loved one. Often, those stories are punctuated with feelings of worry, guilt and uncertainty over how to best care for their elderly parent or friend.
Recently, a number of up-and-coming electronics manufacturers have developed a variety of technologies aimed squarely at this growing market of concerned caregivers. The solutions, they hope, will afford seniors the means to lead an independent life at home while giving their family members the assurance that all is well.
According to healthcare statistics, the timing couldn’t be better. In a June 2009 report from the AARP Policy Institute, the population of people 65 or older is projected to grow by 89 percent between 2007 and 2030, more than four times faster than the population overall. The aging population will skyrocket by another 118 percent between the years 2030 and 2050.
“The silver tsunami is coming,” says Laura Mitchell, director of business relations at Grand Care Systems, a manufacturer of monitoring systems for seniors. “As the generation of baby boomers grows older, we simply won’t have the resources—facilities or manpower—to adequately take care of our aging population, unless we invest in the development of digital home healthcare technology.”
Factor in the astronomical costs of long-term care, and it’s easy to see why some healthcare analysts believe the digital home healthcare industry will grow from a $2 billion business to a $20 billion industry by 2020. (Click here to view a slideshow of digital home healthcare products.)
Like any emerging industry, the digital home healthcare market today consists mainly of small start-up companies, although big names like GE, Intel and Philips are major players as well (see sidebar). Little synergy exists between the manufacturers, resulting in an industry that’s “somewhat chaotic right now,” says Laurie Orlov of market research firm Aging in Place Technology Watch.
“Products that should probably be sold together as a package are being sold separately, and pricing is all over the board.” Still, the technologies available are innovative, affordable and—most importantly—cater to the needs of both stay-at-home seniors and the people who care for them.
To gain a clearer sense of some of the solutions gaining steam, Orlov divides digital home healthcare products and systems into four main categories: safety and security, communication and engagement, health and wellness, and learning and contribution. Although technologies that help seniors stay mentally sharp are important, the systems and products that fall under the first three categories are expected to have the biggest impact on the aging-at-home lifestyle.
Safety and Security
The home safety and security market is driven largely by companies with systems designed to monitor the activities of an individual and report those findings to a preselected group of people. Personal emergency response system (PERS) devices, which typically alert caregivers of a critical situation after it has occurred, are one example of this type of product. However, today’s breed of alert systems focus on more on preventing and mitigating problems than sending out an S.O.S. Referred to as ADL (activities of daily living) monitoring systems, they employ a combination of small, unobtrusive wireless environmental sensors, a networking base unit, specially configured software, and the Internet to communicate to caregivers the daily routines of their elderly stay-at-home parents. The sensors and networking unit capture information about the person’s movement throughout the day and distribute it to a secure web server, where the software analyzes and organizes the data. Invited caregivers can then log on to review the recorded information. They can also receive instant alerts via email or text when specified sensors are tripped or if no activity has been recorded within a certain period of time.
Another advantage of ADL systems over typical PERS devices is that neither the user nor caregiver needs to interact with the technology, says Kip Meacham, vice president of marketing for ADL manufacturer CloseBy Network. (PERS devices require a person to press a button or pull a cord for help.) Instead, the wireless system does all the work, generating phone calls, emails or texts automatically and maintaining a continual log of the user’s daily routine.
The sensors, similar to those of home security systems, can be used in a variety of ways. Planted underneath the carpet by the bed, they can monitor a user’s sleep patterns. Attached to the refrigerator door, they can track when the user has last eaten. By the stove, they can alert someone if the user has forgotten to turn off the burner. Placed in a hallway, they can monitor if a loved one is moving around and maintaining a regular schedule. “It’s a very proactive and effective assessment tool,” says Mitchell. “Through ADL information gathered by our system, we’ve been able to help diagnose certain medical problems like sleepwalking and urinary tract infections.”
The fact that the sensors are wireless means they can be repositioned and new units can be easily integrated into the system at any time. After noticing a drastic weight loss in his father, Grant Jones, strategic account manager at CloseBy Network, added a contact sensor to the door of his father’s refrigerator. “In a week’s time, it reported that the door had been open only three times. With that information we were able to discover exactly what was happening and remedy the problem quickly.” He and his siblings now take turns delivering meals to their father.
Another feature Jones and other CloseBy Network clients could easily add to the system is automation. The CloseBy software runs on a Control4 processor, which can automate lights, thermostats, audio/video gear and other equipment when programmed by a custom electronics installer. These features can afford seniors a simpler, more convenient means of managing their homes, and since the Control4 system can be accessed remotely, caregivers can monitor and control any device on the network from an iPhone or other mobile device.
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Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.